What You Need To Know About The CFO’s Changing Role

It’s no secret: The role of the CFO is changing. It’s a reality we’re well aware of here at Vantage, and about which we’ve written before.

Few CFOs are more versed in those changes and evolutions than Mark Stull, CFO of Liberty Hardware in Winstom-Salem, North Carolina, since 2006. A former CPA with over 25 years of experience, Mark has worked in manufacturing at Bose, where he began working in 1994, and Qualcomm, which he joined in 1998. His past roles and expertise include public accounting, manufacturing controller, corporate controller, strategic business development, CFO, and COO-like responsibilities. His industry experience stretches across consumer electronics, high-tech wireless, and consumer hard goods.

In this interview, Mark talks about why “blocking and tackling” isn’t enough for CFOs anymore, and offers insights on how to make your finance organization an advantage for your company.

Adam Vandoski: How have you seen the role of the CFO evolve after joining Qualcomm in 1998?
Mark Stull: I’ve always thought a little differently about things, and about the CFO role. When I was with Qualcomm, I spent about four years working in strategic business development. So it just gave me a little bit of a different perspective.
AV: As you married the business development piece and with the CFO-type blocking and tackling. Talk a little bit about the difference between two types of CFOs—one that was a little bit more the traditional CFO role, versus this more strategic CFO role. Draw some contrasts. 
MS: The contrast is that, (as a more strategic CFO), you add more value to the business. I’ve run into many CFOs in my career that were outstanding functional experts. But they really didn’t have a seat at the table with regard to discussing the broader business and where the opportunities are. They were more of scorekeeper. They knew the numbers. They knew what was driving the numbers from a dollars and cents perspective, but didn’t have a seat at the table with regard to “how do we grow the business?”

You can’t afford to make as many mistakes these days. The expectations are higher.

AV: Along those lines, in your experience, how has the relationship between CEOs and CFOs changed?

MS: I think anybody who wants to be a strategic partner in the business, whether they come from finance or sales or marketing, you’ve got to have a broader perspective and depth of understanding of the business, and what causes people to make “buy decisions.” That’s why I call it “blocking and tackling”—you can’t play football unless you know how to block and tackle, and you can’t be a CFO unless you can handle the finance and accounting and all the regulatory stuff. That’s the ticket to the game.

AV: You talked about understanding the business, understanding the customer, and what causes them to make “buy decisions.” Are there any other elements of understanding the business that you would add to that list?

MS: Yeah. Be a learner. Where I see professionals fall short, especially finance people, is being open to learning, and embracing the learning process of understanding the business. It’s one thing to sort of understand the categories that we sell into our customers, it’s another thing to understand the value proposition of the categories into our customers. In my career, I see finance professional stop shy of that.

For example, I might throw out a marketing idea to my CEO. The first couple times I did it, he said, “Wow, look at that. We’re getting marketing ideas from our CFO.”

AV: You mentioned customer value proposition. Is that really the crux of it for you?

MS: Any business has a value chain associated with it, and it’s a very complex chain. So, you know it goes all the way from design to idea generation through high service levels and everything in between. I think understanding that entire value chain— having a role in understanding the business—especially for finance person (is important), because usually the value chain is how the money flows

AV: How is finance becoming a competitive advantage for companies?
MS: It’s our ability to interpret the numbers and provide analytics—true, deep analytics of the business to point our partners at opportunities, or, arm our salesforce with information.

AV: Talk about your goal deployment process.
MS: Goal deployment is something you will hear a lot of consultants talk about. Goal deployment is really what i’ll call a cascading methodology that takes company goals—the old school is the K.P.I (key performance indicators) thing. Goal deployment is more forward looking performance measurement program. A lot of people use goal deployment as a way of reaching stretch goals. So you engage in a long-term planning process to determine what the real goals are for your business, and the thing that you have to do well short term and long term (to accomplish them), and then you create a performance measurement process that engages the business in focusing on those, and cascading the opportunities down into the organization.
AV: How does that process affect your decision making in the here and now?
MS: It focuses you. It makes it easier, because you’ve got a roadmap—a beacon to look at to say, “these are the things we’ve said that are important.”
AV: If I’m a CFO, and I say, “I’ve probably had my head in the sand a little bit,” where do I start in changing how I’m perceived within the organization.
MS: That’s a tough process. There are maybe three steps to that. One, you’ve got to get your head around it—what does it mean and what do I need to change? Two, you’ve got to get your staff’s head around it. And three, you have to get your organization comfortable with it.
For me, I got about 12 years into my career and wondered, “Why did I pick finance?” just because I found myself thinking differently, and I found myself being more comfortable from sales and marketing and operations than I did with people from finance. The toughest thing for me was the staff. …You have to hire a different kind of staff. You have to hire people who are a little more outgoing. People who are more comfortable interacting cross-functionally.

A good place to start is with your CEO and your peers. Just sitting down with them and saying, “What could the finance organization do to help be a competitive advantage.’” That might seem like a weird question, but I bet your CEO has some great ideas.

AV: If you could go back and have a conversation with yourself as you were becoming a leader, what would you say?
MS: I would probably say “lighten up and learn the business.” We all come out as CPAs. You go through the CPA exam, and you get real technically sound at what you do, and the first major title you look at becoming is a controller. Think about the definition of that world. Control. You think that your job is to control everybody.

I was no different. My path was the same. I became a controller very, very early. Looking back on that, if I were to go back to those days in my 20s as a controller, my answer to your question would be “lighten up and learn the business.”


Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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